“I Smell a Riot!”

I came downtown hoping to film Vancouver at its best. The camaraderie, the passion, the joy. And for a while I did. Even two goals down the crowds in bars, Canada Place and the Vancouver Library were positive and care free.

It wouldn’t last.

I started my tour for this historic day on Granville Street, visiting taverns, coffee shops and an Asian restaurant where everyone smoked from hookahs as they watched the game.

It was a beautiful day outside, and the street was alive with people jumping from bar to bar. A guy on a unicycle shouted “Go Canucks Go!” People carried flags and signs. It was a party and everyone was invited.


 
Despite what some people said, the police were around, doing spot checks of people’s bags.  From what I heard later, they stopped because there were simply too many people coming in.


When I reached Canada Place the second period was just starting. The crowd here was huge. Three times the size of the previous game, at least. People here were sitting on the ground, laughing, laying in puppy piles, or just sprawled out.

By the time I left, however, the mood was turning to apathy. The game was not going well.  But even then there were always young people full of enthusiasm and energy, eager to put on a display of support.  I suspect these are the same people, however, who were all to willing to join what was yet to come.

It took a while to reach the library, but when I did things were starting to get ugly. People were leaving, and those that stayed behind were bitter.

Not everyone, mind you, but they were the ones who made themselves heard.  Most of the people simply looked depressed.

In the last two minutes of the game it was clearly hopeless for Vancouver, and the cheers of “Go Canucks Go!” turned to “Fuck Boston!” (Later in the day I would notice that even the signs had changed to this slogan).

Then the throwing started.

First it was just an empty bottle. Then they were full. Gentle lobs that missed by a mile changed to hard direct missiles, and it wasn’t long before the screen was visibly damaged, blanking out or scrambling rows of lights on the screens.

By the time I left there were three such marks.

I heard someone say “We should get shit stirred up” then yelled, “I SMELL A RIOT!”

“I DON’T!” I yelled back.

The man next to me, bearded and wearing an old school Canucks jersey grumbled at the endless volleys of debris, now including backpacks and mascots.

“Show some class you morons!”

This was a real fan. He knew the players, followed the games, and knew that the shit stirrers out there had only been along for the ride the last seven games, if at all. We talked for a while as the crowds simultaneously dispersed and coalesced, telling me about what went wrong for Vancouver during the series.

“It’s like the refs never heard of slashing.” He told me more about the series in two minutes that I could ever remember. When he’d finished he said, “Well I should let you go. You probably got a report to write.”

I smiled and tilted my fedora at him. Dressed in my vest and hat, he thought I was a reporter. It was the nicest thing a stranger had ever said to me.

I left expecting to take a round about route to Granville, check it out before going home. On the way, I came across two newspaper boxes that had been knocked over. I picked one back up and a woman rushed to do the same to the other. We nodded and parted ways. I figured that was as bad as things were going to get. I was wrong.

A number of people were going the same direction as me, but I saw two who weren’t. One looked scared.

“I’m not going that way!” I asked her why not. “They flipped a car and kicked out all the windows! They’re using tear gas!”

“Oh hell.”

Maybe it was the guy suggesting I was a reporter earlier, I don’t know, but my first reaction was to run towards the mayhem. I’m a writer, I told myself. I’m a photographer. I came here for a reason. When I got there, a squad van had unloaded a dozen officers. I got on top of a fire hydrant to get a better look at the crowds…

…this wasn’t going to end well. “Fuck Boston!” had become a battle cry.

Rather than looking for a picture to take, I took a moment to look at the crowd. Who was it made up of? Young people. Smiling people. Excited people. Most of them weren’t angry, they were just fully charged looking for an outlet. The ones who didn’t care what that outlet was were the ones who were going to be trouble.

I stopped four teens, two boys and two girls, who passed by me, talking about how horrible it was this was happening but, like a train wreck, they couldn’t look away.

“Look, I have to stay here because it’s my job,” I lied. Why did I say that? It wouldn’t be the last time, either. Before the night was done I was openly claiming to be a freelance journalist. The funny thing was everyone believed me, even cops. “If you want to help, get out of here and tell as many people as you can to do the same.”

There was a sudden rush of people as the police fell back closer to the post office. The insane portion of the crowd took this as a victory and rushed after them. I looked back at the kids. Some people danced as if it was all part of the party. “Trust me, this is only going to get worse.”

Like a fool, I rushed in and realized how right I was. The flipped car was on fire, sending brown smoke up the side of the post office and high into the sky. Every time glass broke a cheer came from the crowd.

I moved from place to place, trying to get a good view while not getting too close. I stood high on a shrub garden’s concrete platform, then later a porta potty – all of them having been knocked down by this point. Not a single one standing.

Some muscle bound morons got behind one a couple dozen feet away, shoved it along the ground and smashed it full speed into the john next to me, knocking off two guys who had been standing on it.

I was suddenly aware that while my legs weren’t weak, they were quivering a little.

Then I made it to the main intersection by the library, where two visiting Irishmen helped me up onto the concrete stand they were on. The Hertz rental had been smashed open, as had the bus stop.

People bounced from porta potty to porta potty like a game of leap frog. A Canadian flag was waved by one man who stood proudly atop an overturned toilet like he had captured Vimy Ridge singlehanded.

The two guys from Ireland swapped stories with me for a while and we tried to joke about the chaos around us.  We obviously weren’t making the best impression on them as a nation.

“We’re not always like this,” I said.

They grinned. “Oh, we know. You guys are all right. But this? Over a game? This is crazy.”

“It’s hilarious,” said his friend.  “Madness.”

Now the mob was attacking the Bank of Montreal. “I have to go back in the shit,” I told them, still pretending I had a press badge in my hat. “But you guys get home before it gets really ugly.”

“Don’t worry, we plan on it,” said the other. “Take care.”

At the Bank of Montreal, one of the barriers had been rammed through a window. A mother with a child screamed angrily at someone who had almost hurt her kid. A cameraman three feet from me got hit on the head with a flying bottle and was escorted out by security.

By now I was questioning why I was there. There were more people with cameras recording the riot than there were rioters! That can’t be right. How much of what was going on was because of the recording audience? Was I making things worse? While I pondered that, the cameraman next to me (one with a professional DSLR that cost as much as a used car, no doubt) was tackled to the ground by some lunatic, who got him into a chokehold.

I jumped on top of him, as did two others, and somehow ended up underneath. I focused on prying off the arm wrapped around the photographer’s neck, who had gone stiff as a board and tried not to get his camera smashed. The nut was crazy strong, but between us we slowly managed to pry him off. I have no idea why the photographer was attacked, but left it to who I was pretty sure were plain clothed policemen or perhaps security for the cameraman to handle.

My camera phone was dead now, so I beat a retreat to find a place with a plug and wi-fi access. My destination turned out to be the A&W on Robson next to the art gallery. The timing couldn’t have been better. I soon heard that tear gas was used everywhere and on all sides of where I was holed up – the store had to keep their doors shut to keep it from leaking in.

It also sounded like the library region was just the start. From the sounds of it the whole downtown was going to hell.

I came downtown to film Vancouver at its best. The camaraderie, the passion, the joy, and I did – but I didn’t realize that each of those seemingly positive words have a darker twin. Those were the ones at play that night, because it’s just as easy to be united, passionate and joyful in destruction as it is celebration.

I know I’m not helping things by recording this. A million camera phones are already doing the same thing. What can I bring to the table other than another pair of eyes that encourages a gawker to throw that next rock?

I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow I will.

Time to go back out.

* * *

11:35. Home. I smell like smoke.

My time in Vancouver is already starting to feel like the past. Like a bad a nightmare – or an action movie. Maybe both. When I went into the A&W, I thought things were pretty bad. It was only a prelude.

I started at the corner of Howe and Robson where, to my surprise, a warm and friendly atmosphere presided. A band played by the museum, people were holding hands and laughing.

I thought it was all over. Maybe I could go home.

Then a chopper flew over head. I looked up and saw the smoke. At the post office the plume was big. The one I saw now, however, filled most of the sky. I had to use a wide angle lens to catch it all.

The chopper’s flood light cut a beam through the smoke, showing me exactly where the trouble was.

I sighed. It wasn’t over. It wasn’t anywhere near over.

At the museum’s fountain a drunken woman skipped in the water. She tossed a coin in and made a wish.

I wish there was more rioting!” she yelled.

Granville looked like a war zone. The Bay was under siege from all sides, and from a distance the building resembled a fortress. But under siege from whom? Here’s the strange thing – while I saw and heard windows smash and objects thrown, I rarely ever saw the people doing it (let alone catch them on camera).

I soon turned my attention away from the looting and looked behind me, at all the other people with cameras. iPhones, SLRs, video equipment, every kind of camera could be seen. They were silently snapping the downfall of The Bay, capturing the dorks who got on top of its overhanging ledge, and recording the mad cheers that rose at each and every smash and bang.

 

I considered going home. I even started to do so, but something drew me back. If this was the worst side of Vancouver, I had to see it for myself. I had to remember it. I had to make sure I didn’t forget.

By the time I got back to the Hudson Bay, the mob had moved to London Drugs across the street. A man stood on a traffic light, proudly waving a Canucks flag as they finally broke in and started looting.

  

 

Every so often the crowd would surge in unison like a flock of birds when the police would drop more gas or make a rush on the crowd somewhere.

I continued down Granville. Fires were being set everywhere. I had put one out earlier, but these were beyond my help.

Garbage, mannequins, even stolen loot was being thrown into the flames.

 

At one point one of them exploded in a fireball six feet across, which came within a dozen feet of me. I have no idea what it was that exploded. I also realized that it hadn’t phased me. I’d been a dozen feet from an explosion, and the only thing I thought was “I wish I got that on film.”

That’s when I decided it was time to start heading home. Fuck this shit.

I felt like I wasn’t so much walking anymore as wandering in a daze. Smoke, fire, glass, loudspeaker warnings to leave the area, but no police to be seen. It was post-apocalyptic. A somewhat drunk Samaritan saw me taking pictures and stopped me to show me his melted shoes, which he had tried to stomp out fires with.

I came across others like this, none of whom had been drinking. They would put out fires – one had an extinguisher – stand in front of broken windows, hold desperately onto barriers so nobody could grab them and throw them through windows. I offered them encouragement and helped when I was able.

Their bravery can’t be forgotten, because the police were nowhere in sight, and even though it was a hopeless fight, they tried to make a stand. They at least showed the crazies what was right, and with luck the rioters will remember them tomorrow and be ashamed that they weren’t on the right side.

I couldn’t help but empathize with one man who said to me, “I wouldn’t mind my civil liberties being stepped on a bit right about now if it would get this under control.”

As I picked up some more turned over newspaper boxes, another one of these concerned citizens joined me.

“You have the right attitude, man,” he said, setting right a box of his own.

“It’s the only sane attitude,” I replied. He patted my shoulder and moved on.

Five minutes later I came across a man lighting a stolen cigarette on a melting trash bin fire.  Sane attitudes were few and far between that night.

When I returned to the A&W I was horrified to see the mob had migrated there. The fun party atmosphere from before had been muscled out, and those who moved in were hell bent on taking down the Chapters next door. Windows were smashed and a huge garbage container had been dragged out to the middle of the street.

I stepped back into the A&W to update everyone on Facebook, then began the walk home. No buses tonight, just police at every cross street, who seemed to get more and more heavily armed.

At the start it was just officers. Then riot shields and helmets. Then dogs. Before I reached the bridge I was seeing officers with heavy duty armoured vests, gas masks and tear gas guns.

The most amazing thing here was that these officers were still friendly. I talked with one for several minutes about what went down, where, and how. He was surprisingly open with me. Maybe it was the hat, I dunno.

“I don’t envy the job you have tonight,” I told him.

“Believe me, I don’t want to be here, either.”

He let me take his picture after I told him the gas mask made him look badass.  That made him chuckle.

The last picture I took before my battery died again was what I thought was a drunk reveler passed out on the curb, surrounded by friends. After I took the picture I heard one of them say, “No, no he has a pulse! He has a pulse!” in a worried tone. Only then did I find out that he had been stabbed.

I was tempted to delete the picture when I got home. But the victim is not clearly seen.  And if I am going to show you just how screwed up this situation became, really, this is it. It was a full moon last night, and this is the monster a small, dark, hidden part of Vancouver turned into.

But it’s not the end of my story. As I neared the bridge I saw a guy and girl high five as they passed each other. Then she held up her hand for me.

I shook my head. “I just don’t feel like it.”

“What’s the matter?” Her voice was a drunken slur.

I waved my hand back to the chaos of Vancouver. “That!”

“What? Are you disappointed?” she whined.

The words sunk into my head very slowly, but when they finally hit, I started to laugh. Disappointed. She said it as if I thought the riot wasn’t big enough.

On Granville Bridge the din began to fade, but at one point I heard a single shrill female voice cry out in the distance.

“Fuck Boston! Fuck them in the ear with no lube!”

For a moment I had forgotten why this had started. Is that really what this was all about?

No. People wanted something to happen. A small scattered number of douchebags who were just looking for an excuse to do what came naturally to them, and knew that for every one of them nine others would join in.

Once across the bridge I could finally take a bus the rest of the way home. Four teens returning from the riots passed me by. I asked them why they thought this happened. One of them summed it up like this:

“I saw one of them go to the game wearing a shirt that said ‘I’m just here for the looting,’ holding a balaclava. He sure as hell wasn’t there for the game.”

A part of me hates myself, because my presence there only encouraged and enabled them. I’m not a journalist. I wish I was. But I am a writer, and that part of me that had come to town hoping to capture the city at its best instead got to see it at its worst.

Harlan Ellison said that the job of a writer is to climb to the top of a mountain and say, “This is where I am today and this is what I see from here.”

This is where I was that day.  And this is what I saw from there.

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6 thoughts on ““I Smell a Riot!”

  1. To determine the intelligence of a mob take the lowest IQ and divide by the number present.

    Theodore Sturgeon

  2. This was one of the best, most heartfelt descriptions of what happened that I have read so far.

  3. Amy’s right, and I especially appreciate your awareness of the contribution of the observer to the scene.
    It seems pretty clear that there are plenty of disgruntled people who need little excuse to vent their frustration with a city so divided as ours. As the gulf between the players and those shut out of the game just continues to widen, this disconcent will contine to make itself known.
    Organized sports are the opium of the masses. I am not condoning the more violent incidents that occurred just after this particularly hyped match, just understanding how it goes. When it is seen as perfectly normal for the tab for a power lunch charged to an expense account to exceed an entire months food budget for most of us, then we know change is a long way off. When there are hundreds of applicants for even the most odious of jobs, and the crummiest room rents for about the same as a whole house used to back in the day, we have to ask what kind of chances do we have for a city so influenced by ruthless over-development?
    With such a shady history, Vancouver has proved itself a real tart, its natural beauty overlaid with an ugliness that is only in part due to the concrete. Its the attitude of entitlement that dominates, fueling the gentrification of the downtown eastside, displacing once again the original inhabits to create an artificial playground as a tourist destination. Oh yes, Vancouver is clawing its way to greatness, and maybe it never did have a soul.
    With Harpers majority, we are on the verge of losing all pretence of being a democratic nation. Our taxes are going to support military goals that we are not even aware of, and to build more prisons for those who find themselves all of a sudden among the disenfranchised. Thinking about the riots in Africa to acheive what we are throwing away, it seems that our apathy , which allowed this crook his majority after all, has become twisted as our values. Or were these disappointed sports fans expressing something more?

  4. Beautifully written, Noah. Very evocative and insightful.

    I know you may have felt like your presence there encouraged and enabled people, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. We need writers to observe things around us and report on them, and that’s what you did. It was nice to hear about some of the people who tried to stop the madness in their own ways that night.

    Keep writing! I look forward to reading more.

  5. I thank you for this Noah. It was very good to read a real person’s view of the situation. However, if you even do something that crazy again, I’ll have to double-kill you (seeing as Gil will have already killed you before me).

    Who do you think you are? Manny? ^_^

  6. You are such a good writer Noah. What a fantastic piece this is. Objective and subjective at the same time. Passionate and dispassionate. Brilliant.

    I agree with your friends – it is important to stay safe. But this an important account of a very difficult to understand event.

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